Marcus Annaeus Lucanus – Pharsalia – ‘The Grove of the Druids’

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39 – 65 CE) was a Roman poet born in Corduba (modern Córdoba, Spain) and educated in Athens. He composed Pharsalia about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey which occurred in about the year 60 CE.

The poem was called De Bello Civili or On the Civil War but is often remembered as Pharsalia after the famous and decisive Battle of Pharsalus which led to the later death of Pompey and the dominance of Caesar. In two of the books in the poem he discusses a bizarre Druid grove in Gaul with many supernatural elements. 

Not far away for ages past had stood
An old unviolated sacred wood,
Whose gloomy boughs, thick interwoven, made
A chill and cheerless everlasting shade:
There nor the rustic gods nor satyrs sport,
Nor Fauns and Silvans with the nymphs resort:
But barbarous priests some dreadful power adore,
And lustrate every tree with human gore.
If mysteries in times of old received
And pious ancientry be yet believed,
There nor the feathered songster builds her nest,
Nor lonely dens conceal the savage beast:
There no tempestuous winds presume to fly;
E’en lightnings glance aloof, and shoot obliquely by.
No wanton breezes toss the dancing leaves,
But shivering horror in the branches heaves.
Black springs with pitchy streams divide the ground,
And, bubbling, rumble with a sullen sound.
Old images of forms misshapen stand,
Rude and unknowing of the artist’s hand;
With hoary filth begrimed, each ghastly head
Strikes the astonished gazer’s soul with dread.
No gods, who long in common shapes appeared.
Were e’er with such religious awe revered:
But zealous crowds in ignorance adore,
And still, the less they know, they fear the more.
Oft (as fame tells) the earth in sounds of woe
Is heard to groan from hollow depths below;
The baleful yew, though dead, has oft been seen
To rise from earth, and spring with dusky green.
With sparkling flames the trees unburning shine,
And round their boles prodigious serpents twine.
The pious worshippers approach not near.
But shun their gods, and kneel with distant fear:
The priest himself, when or the day or night
Rolling have reached their full meridian height,
Refrains the gloomy paths with wary feet,
Dreading the demon of the grove to meet:
Who, terrible to sight, at that fixed hour
Still treads the round about his dreary bower.

Lucan Pharsalia III.399 – Translated by Nicholas Rowe (1703-18).